Glasgow climate change conference lacks access for the disabled and others, critics say

·Senior Climate Editor
·4 min read

GLASGOW, Scotland — Israel's energy minister, Karine Elharrar, said she was unable to attend the U.N. Climate Change Conference on Monday because security would not allow her wheelchair-accessible vehicle to enter. But she’s just one of many participants who are frustrated by the inadequacy of facilities at the conference.

Late Tuesday afternoon, mounting frustration among nongovernmental organizations led the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) to send a letter to Trigg Talley, director of the Office of Global Change at the State Department, lamenting the lack of “transparency and access” in a variety of ways. (USCAN is a coalition of virtually all the major environmental advocacy groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Friends of the Earth, that coordinates activism on global climate change negotiations.)

“We are alarmed by the lack of access at this COP, and implore US Officials in their party capacity of the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] to advocate for more access to observers to the various negotiation sessions and meetings,” the letter states.

Online, activists have complained that official meetings are not open to nongovernmental organizations to observe and there are no live video feeds in the rooms they are able to access. 

More than 30,000 people have descended on Glasgow for the two-week-long round of climate negotiations, also known as COP26. That’s more than twice the number of hotel rooms in the midsize Scottish city, which is not a major tourism destination, and more than the number of people the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) can accommodate at any given time.

But the difficulty in finding accommodations outside the SEC pales in comparison to the challenge of finding a chair inside it. Delegates, activists and journalists circle fruitlessly around tables and desks, searching in vain for a place to pull out their laptops, and often resort to working while standing or sitting on the floor.

Attendees at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, struggle to find chairs at work stations.
Attendees at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, struggle to find chairs at workstations. (Ben Adler/Yahoo News)

The lines to get in on the first day of the conference were so long that it resulted, according to a BBC reporter, in "members of delegations from Maldives, Nepal and Russia all missing meetings.” Lines on day two were almost as long. 

While the security lines at the entrance have since become better organized, the infrastructure inside seems simply too limited to handle demand. Lines at the food hall — with the exception of the station serving traditional Scottish fare such as haggis — are typically long and slow-moving. Items are frequently sold out in the interior shops, water coolers have no cups, and no water bottles are provided or even sold.

No official tally of registered attendees has been made public, and USCAN claims the number is upwards of 55,000. “These are people that came here with the expectation that they would be able to participate, and they are not able to,” the network said in its letter. But USCAN also complains that many of its member organizations have not been allotted enough credentials. Giving out more credentials could exacerbate the capacity issues, but USCAN suggests a few approaches that could be helpful, including increasing the number of security checkpoints and allowing virtual attendees to participate, not just watch.

Adding insult to injury, Elharrar’s office said she was offered a shuttle to the conference, but the bus was not wheelchair-accessible. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized to her, and she attended on Tuesday by going in Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s official motorcade, but it is not clear how the needs of other attendees with a similar situation would be handled.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a fist bump to Israel's Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, who uses a wheelchair, at COP26.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar at the conference on Tuesday. (Alberto Pezzali /Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

In response to widespread complaints about various logistical issues, the UNFCCC, the organizing body of COP26, issued a statement essentially blaming the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic means that UNFCCC and the UK host government had to put many safety measures in place to protect the health of all participants,” the statement said. “This has meant reducing access to many spaces within the venue to ensure social distancing can be maintained as well as having to reduce the security and registration lanes in line with Covid-19-related protocols.”

The statement, however, did not address the specific issue of access for people with disabilities. The UNFCCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.

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